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Reconciling the tragic past



Would we appreciate it, had it never happened?

East of Belle Fourche there is a treeless ridgeline covered by buffalo grass and sagebrush clumps, and despite having driven past it a thousand times over the decades, I never noticed a large area of jutting rock at its center.

There is a theory, down at the subatomic level, particles and waves make every possible choice, thereby creating an infinite number of parallel realities, almost identical to this one, except for maybe the existence of something like that rock outcropping, and were you to be swapped with a parallel version of yourself, and wound up in his nearly identical reality, and he in yours, would either of you be able to notice the switch?

Maybe some of the terrible things that happened, the people you loved and lost, maybe just one of those never ending hurts isn’t true in his universe. Forty years ago last spring, I lost my little brother Lloyd to a fishing accident. He was fifteen, four years younger than me, and one after noon there was a knock at the door, and there stood a sheriff’s deputy and a clergyman. That easily was the longest day of my life.

Reconciling his death was a constant wound that never healed in my mother, and has never healed in me. As a journalist, I am forced to interact with people, and so even though I am reclusive by nature, I know more people than most people have to know, but I am still a lonely person, and when I think of that loneliness, I always think of him.

My little brother was gifted and smart, a singular bright spot in a myopic world of mediocrity and blight. But I never acknowledged or appreciated that while he was alive. I wasn’t the person I am now, I was filled with anger and self-absorption that left little room for kind, gentle moments. My parents never told us they loved us, and I never told my little brother I loved him. But we laughed at the same things, shared the same dreams, and we shared something even more important—a sense of principle, of decency, of honesty, no assault from the poverty we lived in, or the hardship and injustice we faced, could compromise.

Yet, time and again, I mistreated him. Rapped my knuckles off his head, made him cry. Because he frustrated me, tested me, never knowing when enough was enough. He was always so demanding of life, had such an unceasing appetite and hyper-appreciation for the things we cared about. That was the one way we fundamentally differed, I was a dreamer, but he dived in with both feet.

So, near the end, as he grew into a man, that change happened separate from me. Only after he died, did I suddenly recognize and obsess over those details. A few days before the end, I found I could no longer wrestle him off his feet, and I had to resort to guile to get him on his back. Afterwards, he said, “You tricked me!” That was the time to tell him how impressed I was by his strength and agility, because in a couple years, tricks weren’t going to work, I would not be able to beat him in wrestling.

But, he didn’t have a couple of years, just a couple of days, and I remember at the funeral, watching a cute, young girl, one of his classmates, utterly crushed by grief, sobbing uncontrollably… and I realized he no longer fit in the small pocket I had kept my annoying little brother in. Even in death, the consequence of his burgeoning existence had gone well beyond my association with him. This girl had loved him deeply, and I had no idea who she even was.

I have other brothers who live far away, that I seldom speak to. But when I noticed that pile of rock near Belle Fourche, that shouldn’t be there, I thought what if Lloyd was here, instead of that rock, what if he had never died? What if that was the one change being swapped into a parallel reality produced? He deserved a chance at life, to refine his gifts, to share his spirit, to love that grief stricken girl—and he never got that chance. But if he had, if I am honest with myself, more than likely, he would now have a wife and family and a career, far away from me. I would not appreciate the second chance, the blessing of all those years I now got to share with him, all the adult years he got a chance to live to the fullest. I would still be lonely, and reclusive, because I would not associate the horrifying finality of death with him, and we would probably talk to each other, on the phone, maybe once, every couple of years.

(James Giago Davies is an enrolled member of the Oglala Lakota tribe. He can be reached at

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